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Johannes Röser

To Dare More Democracy within the Church


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 51/2007, P. 423f
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Wars are waged to prevent democracy and to hammer it into others. What is this strange thing that fascinates so many people that they even give their lives for it and frightens some rulers so much that they rob lives for it? And what does all that mean for Christians, who sometimes almost live in two separate worlds - in the democratic of the republic and in the monarchical of the church!

At the beginning of our still young third millennium the - especially for Catholics - difficult relationship between democracy and church is still not settled. All the more so, as it is increasingly difficult for modern people schizophrenically to show two different loyalties, and in the religious life to pretend it had nothing to do with the worldly life. People who are proven in their profession and in the public, in family and leisure and mentally up to date do as children of God not want to be treated like simple-minded children. But, democracy and Catholic Church, do they fit together at all?

The Canadian theologian, religious scholar and sociologist Gregory Baum, has taken up this unpleasant topic once again in the journal 'Concilium' (4/2007). For it continues to hurt many faithful like an open wound, although in a natural biorhythm after phases of agitation weariness creeps in. Thus one probably can and must sobering say that at present the demands for a revival of the democratic synod principle arouse only in very few minds strong emotions. The church petition for a referendum, which in Germany and Austria a few years ago still kept in suspense committed parishioners, is as good as dead. The movement "We Are Church" hardly moves, at best it still jerks a little. All this participates in the general social trend of depoliticization, yes, of political weakening. In this regard the violent engine-driver strike was rather out of place and did rather surprise than excite people. The bigger the coalitions become the more there is a need for harmony and peace. Not only the CDU stated at its last Party Congress, "We are the centre!" All parties want to be it; it's all the same whether it is the old or the new centre. Please, let's avoid too much controversy, both in politics and in the church.

Shall we then remind people of controversial matters? Anyway, Gregory Baum tries it. And he hopes that a critical look at past and present helps future on its way - here the future of the (Catholic) Church. Baum soberly establishes that at the beginning of the democratic movements the teaching authority of the church was vehemently closed to them - and this for a long time. Facts are facts. Even subsequently nothing can be sweet-talked there. But also the shady tricks and the paradoxes of history, including the history of the Church belong to the facts. Sometimes also teaching still learns from mistakes. And not so rare at all church prohibitions help in a curious way discovery on its way.


From Error to Error to Truth

So it was with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) whose eyes were opened by a church intervention. After the papal teaching authority had in the 19th century with high, quasi-infallible authority "repeatedly condemned the liberal state, people's sovereignty, civil liberties, } of church and state, and freedom of religion", also Maritain, who had in 1906 become Catholic, welcomed this repulsion of all democratic developments. In the spirit of this traditionalism he joined a radical-conservative, monarchist political movement, L'Action Française. But when Pope Pius XI condemned that group, Maritain began to question his political preferences. He subsequently developed - almost in reverse of what he had thought - a "Catholic theory ... that stood up for democracy, human rights and religious pluralism", though initially not to the delight of the teaching authority of the church.

But even the teaching authority of the church changed in the course of time. A crucial change of awareness occurred with Pope John XXIII. Baum sees here a kind of watershed in the religious understanding of the human dignity of each person. While one previously deduced in neo-scholastic tradition the dignity of persons according to the distinction between natural and supernatural order only from the natural state, i.e. from man's reason, a new aspect was added by the then pope. The dignity of man is also founded in a divine dignity, because of the creation after the image of God. That at once radically changed the entire church social doctrine. It was suddenly shifted rather in the horizon of a divine vocation and a divine mission to form the world.


Where Allegedly Only Monarchy Pleases God

Thus also democracy as guarantor of human dignity at once was raised above a mere worldly-natural utility. The concept 'democracy' got a transcendent sense, a religious dimension. This was a break with previous opinions that regarded monarchy alone as adequate to God. The religious scholar marks this breathtaking radical historical change, which made a whole religious edifice of ideas totter, in this way: "From Plato the Catholic Church took over the aristocratic idea that wise men are to be the ruling authority of society - the few who succeed in overcoming the ignorance of the majority. In imitation of that feudalistic heritage the Catholic teaching differentiated between "Maiores" (the nobility) and "Minores" (people); the former had the authority to rule and the latter the duty to obey." Hence the ideas of sovereignty of the people, share of responsibility and participation were radically rejected also by the church.



But only up to the huge paradigm shift in the context of the last Council: "In the past the discipleship of Jesus or the striving for holiness was not concerned with the affairs of the common good and solidarity with the victims of society. This has now changed. ... Today ... the church recognizes the divine origin of human dignity and thus regards the continuing efforts to find a democratic social order as pleasing to God. "The promotion of human rights, democratic participation, and freedom of religion quite obviously belongs to the central tasks of evangelization.

But there is a minor defect: What the Catholic Church preaches about its social doctrine to the outside and demands without wavering both from societies and rulers is not, or at best only partially in segments applied by it to itself: for example, equal participation in all major decisions, participation, hearing, comprehensive dialogues, free elections for leading spiritual offices, unconditional collegiality at all levels...


The Council Wanted the Change

Admittedly Baum sees in the Second Vatican Council a strong first attempt to recognize the important principle of subsidiarity of the Catholic social teaching also within the church. This means that at a lower level matters that can be regulated there, should be "autonomously" regulated. But all in all the traditional view of a sacred rule - hierarchy - had not been infringed from the top. The Council had only tried "to enrich the exercise of authority by exchange and dialogue. It had not declared itself for a parliamentary democracy in the Church, as they are found in several Anglican and Protestant churches. But the Second Vatican Council wanted to change the image of the Church as a monarchical institution with an uncontroversial central decision-making authority intervening also at all subordinate levels."

That was at best reached to some extent and in recent decades taken back again. Gregory Baum gives as example the restriction of the - also theological - authority of the Bishops' Conferences by the Vatican. Those committees are at most regarded as a kind of administrative authority for the agreement on pastoral activities or for the communication of orders from Rome. Actual teaching authority, perhaps even a collective leading competence as successors of the Apostles College is denied them. Also the numerous local or regional synods with lay men and women taking part had in fact had no effect. "The synods were held; the Catholics participated with great enthusiasm; and extensive reports on the proposals worked out there were written. But the bishops, who had organized these gatherings did not listen to them. In obedience to Rome they turned their backs on the people. And then in many places people turned their backs on the official church." One can add: As it becomes apparent in the current religious crisis of the parishes, the once forward-looking decisions of the Würzburg Synod of West Germany's dioceses have been virtually unanswered put away and continue gathering dust in archives.


Strong Teaching Authority of the Church, Strong People of God

Maybe Gregory Baum's picture is here and there a bit too one-sided, too pessimistic drawn. One can also point to the fact that the religious situation in the aforementioned Protestant Churches, which have realized all those democratic ideals to a large extent, looks not one bit better but rather much worse. Besides, in the secular society in many institutions things are by no means so democratic, often even significantly more centralistic and authoritarian than in church life, if one thinks of companies' management alone. Even in the democratic parties the grass-root complains about lacking internal transparency and dialogue capability, and that's why moroseness about parties and politics is spreading among the people.

On the other hand it cannot be ignored that people, including the faithful and committed Catholics live in democratic societies just with a very different, modern awareness. The surveillance of the authority and offices as well as of office holders by various committees - as imperfect as it may be - naturally belongs to them. In businesses participation applies. The boards of combines must work collectively and like good colleagues. They are monitored by supervisory boards and shareholders. The latter demand an account: by way of buying and selling their shares and particularly by the large meetings, above all of the institutional investors. In other companies there are administrative councils. In spite of all the weaknesses of secular separation of powers, the Church can no longer excuse its omissions by the fact that democracy does not perfectly function also in economy, political parties and other important social and cultural institutions. Faith lives also from feelings, especially from the feeling to be recognized, paid attention, and taken seriously as thinking person.

We talk a lot of inculturation - and think by it of that in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But how is faith inculturated with us - into the culture of the democratic? The grave lack is not only an annoyance for many faithful. It produces a bad image: Prejudice upon prejudice to the detriment of the church and the credibility not only of its structure but of its faith,. In a media society with much latent hostility to the church the devastating external perception should not be underestimated.

Certainly one cannot infinitely lead dialogues. At some time or other there are needed decisiveness and decisions, both in the world and in the church. And in spite of all participation there is needed of course intellectual and spiritual leadership, guidance, direction - similar to the policy competence of the Federal Chancellor. A strong teaching authority will serve that purpose. We want such a strong, and not a weak teaching authority, an apostolic teaching authority, including the papal. But we need it in a way where matters in question are discussed and agreed on like among good colleagues. It is true: The people knows many difficult things not just automatically better only because it is the people. Majorities too can be wrong, sometimes most brutally. But that applies in exactly the same way to the teaching authority of the church. An opinion stated by it is not already therefore convincing because one maintains that it was conclusive or presents it in a binding decree. Even in matters of faith there is needed much more and repeated, yes permanent examination and self-examination by way of synods and councils - of course with decisions. For it already early councils have been invented and developed, long before there was a secular democracy. Can therefore the church, which had now again to learn from the world, here even learn from itself?


collective leading competence of Culture

Certainly, one difficulty is the present mental state: people are tired of the endless politicization of all areas. Besides, democracy is connected with permanent arguments and wearing quarrel, not so rare with fiercely rebellious argumentation. Not in all phases people like that in the same way. Sometimes we just hanker for more harmony and soothing.

Perhaps the currently seen depoliticization of society is also an additional success of women's emancipation, certainly of the fact that by it the "soft issues" came to the fore and the harder ones receded into the background. You can observe it in the debate on family justice, which actually needed tough structural reforms in the financial policy and therefore belonged in the centre of the (still male!) Finance Minister. But it is pushed away in an infinite variety of - certainly not unimportant - "sub-themes" with the (now again female) Family Minister, who can day after day present herself suitable for the media on all channels. The substantial problems, as for example a real compensation for all families - and not just cosmetic improvements for those with infants and young children - are not yet tackled fully from the point of view of financial and legal policy according to the instructions of the Federal Constitutional Court. Virtually today no average sole earner is longer in a position to keep his family with several children - when these become youngsters, in case one has inherited nothing and no residential property. Likewise, the tough structural issues are not adequately publicly discussed in politics: over generations misdirected wealth distribution, a possibly emerging cultural and class struggle against the family middle class that is carrying state and society, or wage dumping, the scourge of temporary contracts robbing young people of any social planning for the future. And: Where are the strong women in strong unions as members and leaders? Where are in many businesses the women who devote themselves to trade union work? Where are the strong women in the powerful management floors? Are we really on the way to a certain feminization of our culture? At any rate, suddenly new virtues of cosiness are "hip": for wellness, happiness, comfort. At any rate, suddenly new virtues of cosiness are "hip": for wellness, happiness, comfort. The loss of fighting spirit is seen as gain. This has advantages, but also disadvantages.


Please More Dispute

The Catholic Church is "feminized" in a distinctive way - in the church folk. Admittedly long since also many self-confident women leave the parish councils. But the loss of men and thus of male oriented spirituality cannot be overlooked. Even the parish councils, which were once much-sought after by men as a tool of substantial participation are in the meantime left to women. Perhaps because men think they could here no longer achieve something? Are they disappointed, have they resigned, do they believe the councils are not capable of doing substantial things? Have the institutions that once should inspire the democratization of the church become paralyzed, degenerated into a pseudo-democratic playground without real decision-making power? Can they only be a sociable evening entertainment and refuge of conversation without obligation?

But the major councils and synods have never been that. Dispute has always been a constitutive element of them, especially in central questions of faith. Just think of the development of the Trinity-Triunity understanding, partly even in regular "Robber Synods". Have we already forgotten it? Anyway, these are unpleasant observations and questions that must also be critically discussed in the parishes.

Gregory Baum says summarizing, of course, referring to the Catholic viewpoint, "The internal organization of the Church has a symbolic power. It announces its message to the society and supports the cultural currents fitting to it. What the church thinks about democracy is not so much expressed by its prophetic official doctrine but rather by its own institutional life. The lack of dialogue, the refusal to consult the faithful, the absence of institutions inviting for the exchange of ideas, the exclusion of women from influential positions, the indifference towards a helpful and considerate participation, and the practising of a monocratic authority - all these organizational structures announce to the society a message that is incompatible with the respect for the subject character of all citizens and with the church's prophetic theory on democracy."

Are we to dare more democracy in the church? For the renewal of faith, for the future viability of Christianity and its public attractiveness and relevance? - Perhaps that is not as unimportant as we sometimes think.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'